Mercenaries, UN Peacekeepers, and Multilateral Forces May Not Be Enough to Protect the Congo from the M23 Movement

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor

Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

July 9, 2024

Executive Summary:

  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) continues to struggle to remove M23 rebels from its eastern provinces despite military aid and the assistance of UN troops and European mercenaries. The current UN peacekeeping mission is expected to withdraw by the end of 2024, likely ushering in a period of greater instability in the historically troubled state of Nord-Kivu.
  • Incompetence on the part of the DRC’s army has led to a renewed reliance on European mercenaries and multilateral military operations. This has also opened the door to greater Russian involvement, with Moscow signing a military cooperation agreement with the DRC in March.

Rarely paid, barely trained and poorly equipped, the army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is struggling to drive M23 rebels from the eastern Congo despite the help of UN troops, European mercenaries and military assistance from neighboring states and even nations far from the fighting. The ongoing difficulties of this army, the Forces armées de la république démocratique du Congo (FARDC), have raised local concerns of infiltration or even collaboration with M23 (Mouvement du 23 mars) (AFP, March 30). To revive FARDC’s faltering offensive spirit, Kinshasa has now reintroduced capital punishment sentences in its military courts. On May 3, eight soldiers, including five officers, were sentenced to death for cowardice and “running away from the enemy” (Agence de Presse Africaine, May 4).

M23 Troops Advance in Nord Kivu (VOA)

Formed in 2012 from ethnic Tutsi in the eastern state of Nord-Kivu, M23 receives support from Tutsi-ruled Rwanda as a means of fending off the Kinshasa-backed Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu-based Rwandan armed opposition movement promoting the lethal ideology behind the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda (Le Monde, March 20; Great Lakes Eye [Kigali], December 28, 2022).

General Sultani Emmanuel Makenga (right) (Arab News)

M23 made an earlier play for power over a decade ago under a Rwandan Tutsi, General Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda (jailed for 30 years by the International Criminal Court in 2019 for war crimes and crimes against humanity). M23 took the Nord-Kivu capital of Goma, but were defeated in 2013, their fighters fleeing across the border to refuge in Uganda and Rwanda. The movement began to return to the DRC quietly in 2017 under military leader Brigadier General Sultani Emmanuel Makenga. A Congo-born member of the Mugogwe sub-group of the Tutsi, Makenga helped bring Laurent-Désiré Kabila to power in the DRC in 1997 before Tutsis were ordered to leave the Congo during a general expulsion of “foreign” troops the next year (New African, February 15, 2013).

A reorganized M23 retook the offensive in eastern Congo in October 2021 after Kinshasa launched a campaign to force all armed groups in its eastern provinces to disarm and demobilize. Under pressure from the rebels, President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo declared in October 2022 that he would not give in to the “fashionable” trend of hiring mercenaries to combat rebellion in his country. Two months later, White mercenaries were spotted providing security around Goma airport (Great Lakes Eye [Kigali], January 19, 2023). These were the vanguard of Romanian private military company (PMC) Asociatia RALF-ROLE, composed mostly of former members of the French Foreign Legion. The mission was meant to focus on training and securing Goma’s international airport, but Romanian mercenaries have instead found themselves fighting at the front.

RALF-ROLE originally consisted of 400 fighters, but Rwanda claims there are now as many as 2,000 mercenaries from Eastern Europe in Nord-Kivu (New Times [Kigali], October 16, 2023). A 2022 decision to lift a long-standing arms embargo on the DRC allowed a free flow of arms for the mercenaries, who are paid $5000 per month (Observator [Bucharest], February 9). The local habit of referring to the Romanians as “Russians” initially created many false reports of a Wagner presence in Nord-Kivu. Unlike Wagner’s connections to the Kremlin, Romanian authorities have made it clear there is no state involvement with the Romanian mercenary group (Observator [Bucharest], February 9).

FARDC Defensive Position (AFP)

Nonetheless, there are indications that the Kremlin is seeking a military entry to the DRC; on March 5, Russia’s Defense Ministry signed a military cooperation agreement with Kinshasa. The pact provides for joint military exercises, military training and visits by warships and military aircraft (TASS, March 5;, March 6). FARDC’s aging air assets are currently flown by Georgian and Belarussian pilots, while their maintenance is in the hands of Bulgarian PMC Agemira  (Deutsche Welle, January 17, 2023; Jeune Afrique, July 28, 2023).

Wazalendo Mayi Mayi (Congo Indépendant)

Corrupt and undisciplined, FARDC is supported not only by the Hutu FDLR and European mercenaries, but also Burundian troops and the Wazalendo (Kiswahili – “patriots”), a coalition of Mayi Mayi militias and other pro-government armed groups formed by FARDC in May 2023 (Africa Defense Forum, January 16). The Mayi Mayi are local Congolese militias ostensibly engaged in a struggle for indigenous rights, but better known for drug-fuelled rampages against villagers involving rape, looting and murder (see Terrorism Monitor, April 3, 2014).

EACRF Commander General Jeff Nyaga

The incompetence of FARDC forces Kinshasa to seek defenders abroad. The East African Community Regional Force (EACRF – Burundians, Ugandans, Kenyans and South Sudanese) deployed in Nord-Kivu in November 2022 during M23 advances, but withdrew its last troops in December 2023 after the DRC declined to renew its mandate (East African [Nairobi], December 21, 2023). Only months into their mission, EACRF faced threats in Goma from demonstrators who accused the force of failing to take the fight to M23, though their mandate called for an offensive only as a last resort (Great Lakes Eye [Kigali], March 21, 2023; DRC News, May 16, 2023). EACRF’s Kenyan commander, General Jeff Nyaga, resigned in April 2023, complaining of intimidation from “foreign mercenaries” (Kinshasa Times, April 28, 2023). Nyaga was accused by the Congolese of “peaceful cohabitation” with M23 and Rwandan troops in Kivu (Kinshasa Times, May 3, 2023). Dissatisfaction with EACRF’s performance may have motivated Tshisekedi to intensify his recruitment of mercenaries.

About 1,000 Tanzanian, Malawian and South African troops belonging to the Southern African Development Community Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (SAMIDRC) began to arrive as replacements for EACRF in December 2023, but deployment has been slow and six men have already been lost to M23 mortar fire (DRC News, April 3; Kinshasa Times, April 9). SAMIDRC is led by South Africa’s Major General Monwabisi Dyakopu, who fought M23 in 2013.


Also active in Nord-Kivu are UN peacekeepers of MONUSCO (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo), the UN’s largest and most-expensive peacekeeping mission. First deployed in 2000, MONUSCO now operates alongside FARDC to defend the Nord-Kivu cities of Saké and Goma (DRC News, March 13).

Though remote and impoverished, Nord-Kivu’s extraordinary mineral wealth continues to draw armed groups like moths to a flame. As with most long-term conflicts, many of the varied participants in the struggle for Nord-Kivu have found ways to profit from its extension rather than its resolution, discouraging any foreseeable improvements in security.

Russia Switches Sides in Sudan War

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

July 8, 2024

Executive Summary:

  • The Kremlin has reconsidered its support for the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces, throwing more weight behind the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Transitional Sovereignty Council.
  • The move serves to align Moscow’s position more closely with that of Iran, seeks to dampen the SAF’s cooperation with Ukraine, and highlights the ongoing interest in establishing a Russian naval base in Port Sudan.
  • Should Russia possess naval bases in both Libya and Sudan, it will have an opportunity to establish supply lines into the landlocked nations of the African interior that now host units of Moscow’s Africa Corps.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service)

The Kremlin is backing away from its support of the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan’s ongoing internal war. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov confirmed Moscow’s gradual shift on April 29 during a visit to Port Sudan (Sudan Tribune, April 29). Russia once saw RSF leader Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” as vital to establishing a Russian port on the Red Sea in Port Sudan (see EDM, November 14, 2023). The situation has since changed. Before his death, notorious Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin worked closely with the RSF, supplying arms in return for gold (see Terrorism Monitor, December 15, 2023). Simultaneously, however, the Kremlin maintained open channels with their opposition, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC) government. Moscow is now exploiting these openings.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov

Supporting the SAF and TSC, with control over Port Sudan, aligns Russian policy with Iran’s. For its part, Tehran has been supplying advanced drones to the SAF. The switch also helps sever the SAF’s relationship with Ukraine, which has been supplying drones and special forces assistance to General Abdel al-Fatah al-Burhan’s SAF since the summer of 2023 (Kyiv Independent, September 20, 2023; see EDM, November 14, 2023).

Bogdanov confirmed the Kremlin’s shift during his two-day visit to Port Sudan (Sudan Tribune, April 29). His military-heavy delegation offered Sudan “unrestricted qualitative military aid” while disapproving of Sudan’s military cooperation with Ukraine (Sudan Tribune, April 30). Bogdanov later clarified that Russia recognizes the TSC as the legitimate representative of the Sudanese people (Al-Mayadeen, May 31). The Russian official had met with Iranian Deputy Prime Minister Ali Bagheri Kani two days earlier in an apparent effort to align the Kremlin’s new approach with that of Tehran (Nour News, April 25).

Ukrainian Timur Unit Leaders

Some reports have claimed that operatives of the “Timur” unit of Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) have been active in Sudan. While the leader of the unit neither confirms nor denies their presence, he declared, “Wherever there are soldiers, officers, or persons engaged by the special services of the Russian Federation, we catch up with them” (Ukrainska Pravda, February 13; New Arab, February 26). Ukrainian sources have reported months-long operations carried out in Sudan by Ukrainian special forces against “Russian mercenaries and their local terrorist partners” (Kyiv Post, January 30). Sources suggested that, during Bogdanov’s April visit, Sudan pledged to abandon military cooperation with the Ukrainians, while Russia agreed likewise to halt assistance to the RSF (Mada Madr, June 7).  The RSF has steadily become reliant on support from the United Arab Emirates in the face of diminishing Russian supplies since Prigozhin’s death.

Kyiv likely sought to interrupt the RSF-assisted flow of Sudanese gold that was helping Russia overcome international sanctions. In changing support from the RSF to the SAF, Moscow would temporarily forgo the gold shipments that have helped the Russian economy. The diminishing size of these shipments due to Sudan’s conflict, however, removes much of Russia’s incentive to continue supporting the RSF. Meanwhile, the Libyan port of Tobruk is effectively becoming a Russian naval base (see EDM, March 12). Should Russia possess naval bases in both Libya and Sudan, it will have an opportunity to establish supply lines into the landlocked nations of the African interior that now host units of Moscow’s Africa Corps.

Moscow is eager to implement a 2019 deal with Sudan to establish a Russian Red Sea naval base near Port Sudan capable of accommodating up to four ships at a time, including those with a nuclear power plant. Progress has been halted, however, due to the ongoing absence of a parliament or other legislative body in Sudan capable of ratifying the agreement (Military Review, February 13).

General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (left) with General Yasir al-Atta (Sudans Post)

On May 25, Yasir al-Atta, a member of the Sovereignty Council and deputy commander of the army, declared that the TSC was ready to approve the deal, though the port was no longer described as a naval base. He stated, “Russia proposed military cooperation through a logistics supply center, not a full military base, in exchange for urgent supplies of weapons and ammunition” (Radio Dabanga, May 29; Mada Madr, June 7). While Atta said a partnership agreement with Russia was expected soon, he stressed that Sudan was open to similar agreements with countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Riyadh, which opposes the Russian port, has offered greater investment in Sudan if it drops the deal (Sudan Tribune, May 25).

Port Sudan – Red Sea Gateway to Africa

The Sudanese ambassador to Russia has assured Moscow that Sudan is not backing away from its commitment to construct a Russian naval base. Yet, Bogdanov confirmed on June 12 that while discussions on the port continued, “there are no firm agreements at this time” (Sputnik, June 1; Sudan Tribune, June 12). Many civilian leaders in Sudan question the TSC and the SAF’s right to implement an agreement with sovereignty implications. They also fear that the arrival of Russian military aid might only prolong the devastating conflict (Mada Madr, June 7).

Sudan may be looking to the Djibouti for-profit model of hosting naval bases for various countries. Jibril Ibrahim, Sudan’s finance minister (also the leader of Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement, now allied to the SAF), recently characterized the proposed Russian facility as “not a large base, but rather a service center for Russian ships to obtain supplies.” He added that Sudan’s Red Sea coast could “accommodate everyone if the United States wants to buy a similar port” (Asharq al-Awsat, June 8).  

Transitional Sovereignty Council leaders in Port Sudan may be using the extended negotiations with the Kremlin as a means of focusing Western attention on the conflict and the need to interrupt the supply of weapons and personnel to the RSF. Sudan routinely says its cooperation with Russia and Iran is unavoidable without Western support (Sudan Tribune, May 3). Otherwise, the degree of military cooperation between Sudan and Russia will depend greatly on how badly the politicians and generals in Port Sudan seek potentially game-changing Russian arms.